Scotland’s Land Rights & Responsibilities Statement – not a legal document?

Published on: Author: Ruth O'Donnell Leave a comment

The following article was originally published on Frankie McCarthy’s blog under the same title:

I’ve been mulling over the proposed Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement with a view to responding to the current Scottish Government consultation (responses due by Friday 10th March). I tend to respond to consultations with my legal academic hat on, meaning that I am using my disciplinary training to identify potential legal problems with the topic of the consultation, rather than giving a personal opinion on whether the Government should be trying to do what it’s doing. That approach leaves me with little to say on the LRRS since, as far as I can see, it has almost no legal consequences at all.

To be clear: I don’t think that is a problem in itself. For one thing, a clear statement of the Government’s policy ambitions in relation to land evidently has significant political value. It is a statement of intent, and a yardstick against which future actions can be measured. That is important.

Looking at it purely from my narrow disciplinary perspective, the simple fact that the Statement will exist is valuable too. All countries have property law rules of some kind, but very few make it easy to understand why the rules which have been chosen are in place. This can give the illusion that rules are somehow objective or politically neutral when, where property law is concerned, nothing can be further from the truth. A frequent bugbear of mine in respect of case law on human rights in relation to property is that the values underpinning property law rules are rarely acknowledged by the court. The Statement shines a light on that kind of value-smuggling, which is a very positive step, in my view.

This consultation is not about whether the Statement should exist, though. That question was answered by section 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016. This consultation is about what the Statement says – what those values are.

What is giving me pause about this consultation paper, and the (extremely limited) discussion I have seen about it online, is that the Statement’s lack of legal significance may not be clear. The paper does make plain in more than one place that the Statement is simply “a set of principles intended to both guide public policy and inform the practices of all those who own, manage and use land” (p 7). It reiterates the evidence given last year in relation to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill by then-Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Rural Affairs, Aileen McLeod, that, “the Statement should [not] be interpreted as setting measurable objectives for Land Reform. It is not the type of document in relation to which it would be easy or even possible to assess achievement” (p 9). However, the Ministerial Foreword suggests that “when you have rights over land or buildings in Scotland, you also have responsibilities towards the people of our country.” This is arguably true in a moral or political sense, and rights holders in respect of land do have some legal responsibilities towards the general public, most notably in terms of facilitating the exercise of access rights under Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, but the Statement itself does nothing to impose any such responsibilities on rights holders. The paper also tells us that the LRRS, “should inform the practices of all those who own, manage and use land, in order to achieve culture change through the continued realisation of the vision and principles of the Statement” (p16), but…how? There’s nothing in the Statement itself, nor in the 2016 Act, to create legal obligations in that regard.

Even the legal duties that do surround the Statement seem, to me, a bit meaningless. Scottish Ministers are under a duty to promote the principles of the Statement in exercising their functions under section 3 of the 2016 Act, but how could such a duty be enforced? I am no public lawyer and would be happily corrected, but I can’t see how a court action for breach of this statutory duty could be successful. A claim that Ministers had failed in this duty might well form part of a human rights challenge – might bolster a claim that a particular piece of legislation or decision by a public body was not in the public interest where it ignored or ran counter to the Statement, for example – but the basis for such a challenge lies in human rights law, not in the Statement itself.

As I said above, I don’t think this lack of legal effect is a problem in itself, and I do think the Statement is a valuable document. Perhaps I am the only one who even has this concern about the potential ambiguity of the Statement’s legal import. The conclusion to all this may simply be that I shouldn’t respond to the consultation because essentially I have nothing to say. If anyone else has been has thoughts about the consultation, or about what I’ve said above, I would be happy to hear them.

~ Dr Frankie McCarthy

Dr McCarthy is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law.

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